Timmy Bailey, a 21-year-old linebacker expected to sign a national letter of intent with Mississippi State today, knows a lot about battles.
But it had been a while since any of them came on the recruiting front.
Bailey is finishing his final six credits at Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead, Miss., following 17 months of duty with the Army National Guard. Most of it was in Iraq, where he drove a five-ton truck.
"One day, we were watching vehicles and we got mortared," said Bailey, recalling his most hazardous day. "It was 15 feet away from me. It was the loudest sound I'd ever heard. ... Then I went into a bunker and heard four or five rounds coming around us."
For a 6-foot-3, 237-pound player who can run 4.6 in the 40-yard dash and has a vertical leap of 38 inches, a journey into war after high school might not seem such a natural transition. But two days after Bailey's 17th birthday in August 2001, he signed with the National Guard, hoping the money would make him less dependent on his parents.
"I want things," said Bailey, who grew up in Glen Allan, Miss., a town of just over 1,100. "I want to be able to go out on the weekends."
Before his senior year at Riverside High School in Avon, Miss., Bailey saw the military as his best option to pay for college after he missed his junior season of high school because of injury. Incoming football coach Jeff Horn didn't see it that way, and was surprised when Bailey told him he planned to take the physical for the National Guard.
"I said that you aren't going to have to worry about money for college," Horn said. "I'm not anti-military, but he was going to get a scholarship. He had no idea."
After a senior year in which he led his team in tackles and had 900 receiving yards as a tight end, Bailey received a scholarship offer from Delta State, a Division II school in Cleveland, Miss., but his ACT score was one point too low, according to Horn.
He went through basic training in the summer of 2002, then enrolled at Mississippi Delta the following spring, with the hope of playing for its football team in the fall. It was during the 2003 season that Bailey stood out. He led the Trojans in tackles and drew the attention of major schools.
With the 2004 season ahead, Mississippi State and Texas A&M; were both interested in him enough to offer scholarships. But then the unexpected intervened.
"We're the National Guard. We don't go overseas," Bailey said, recalling his thoughts at the time.
But overseas Bailey went, with Troop A of the 98th Cavalry after a few months of advanced training.
"It was rough, but it was a great bonding experience," Bailey said. "That's what was so important to me."
As his tour came to a close, Bailey asked his community college coach, Jay Miller, to ask around, once again underestimating his potential as a Division I recruit.
Even without playing a game in two years, he found a receptive audience with such Southeastern Conference schools as Mississippi, Mississippi State and Alabama, putting him in the league he'd dreamed of playing in.
"I was just trying to find a home," Bailey remembered of his return to the United States on Dec. 28. Eight days later, Alabama visited. "When Alabama came and saw me, all heck broke loose. Two days later, everyone was calling me."